Paying It Forward

The Andrew Nikou Foundation backs a crowdsourcing model that seeks solutions to education problems.

By Diane Krieger

Andrew Nikou in his Los Angeles office. Earlier this year, his foundation awarded a major grant to the Education (Re)Open, an initiative of Center EDGE. (Photo/Courtesy of the Andrew Nikou Foundation)

Financier Andrew Nikou ’00 (USC Marshall School of Business) was looking to take a long-headed position with one of his foundation’s first major grants. Something meaningful, substantive, with good return on investment. His own life experience had taught him that= education is at the root of nearly all progress.

A mutual friend introduced Nikou to USC Rossier Professor Alan Arkatov in 2019. As the two were exploring philanthropic options, the pandemic landed. COVID-19 was thrashing the education ecosystem, and fresh ideas were desperately needed. Backed by a grant from the Andrew Nikou Foundation, less than a year later, the Education (Re)Open was born.

Arkatov is founding director of the Center for Engagement-Driven Global Education. The Education (Re)Open its newest initiative and its successor, the Education Solutions Exchange, address old and new problems in K–12 schools by “crowdsourcing” solutions from teachers, parents and students.

Arkatov appreciates how Nikou brings a “business aesthetic to his philanthropy.” “Andrew peppered me with a lot of hard questions: ‘Tell me what your assets are. What are the fundamental problems we need to address to make this a better asset? Let me really look under the hood,’” Arkatov says, recalling their early conversations.

Nikou was looking for a different kind of return—one not measured in financial gains but in true innovation and measurable impact. “There was a clear expectation that we’d better deliver,” Arkatov says. “Andrew doesn’t like to focus on anything that can’t scale or is unsustainable.”

Nikou is CEO of OpenGate Capital, an $8 billion, global private equity firm with headquarters in Los Angeles and Paris. He founded the company in 2005. Born in Vancouver, British Columbia, to Iranian immigrants, Nikou, 44, grew up in Woodland Hills, California. As a boy, he was the target of harsh bullying because he was shorter than most of the other children. His father, who worked for the city’s Department of Water and Power, taught Nikou to “be scrappy and smart, to use my brain rather than my muscles,” he told Entrepreneur in 2016.

Nikou credits his dad’s single-minded focus on education with saving his life, after friends were gunned down in a drive-by shooting at a movie theater. Nikou wasn’t with them because his
father had made him stay home and study that night.

Both Nikou and his brother, Cyrus, are proud Trojans. After earning his bachelor’s in finance from USC Marshall, Nikou shot to the top of the private equity world. He commends a USC career counselor for setting his feet on the path to success. “Her advice changed the trajectory of my life,” he says.

Twenty years later, he now has his sights set on tackling some of the world’s biggest problems through philanthropic work. Nikou, who also sits on the boards of the Hammer Museum and musician Pharrell Williams’ nonprofit YELLOW, founded the Andrew Nikou Foundation to provide young people—particularly those with the odds stacked against them—with the opportunity to reach their full potential.

Nikou firmly believes that “education is the centerpiece—there’s no problem that cannot be solved by it,” but he sees the current education system as outdated, built around methods from the Industrial Revolution. He knows this having spent the past year closely observing his three children, ages 6, 5 and 2, as they thrived while homeschooled by their mom, Odelia, and a private teacher.

“COVID has been the ring of fire we had to step through to really see, understand, hear, feel and confront the longstanding inadequacies and inequities of the current educational structure,” says Jules Ho, executive director at the Andrew Nikou Foundation.

If so, then Education (Re)Open and the Education Solutions Exchange might be the community-powered fire brigade we’ve been waiting for.

This story appeared in the USC Rossier Magazine Fall/Winter 2021 issue as “A Paying It Forward.”